Moscow: Culture, cuisine and clubbing

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The Russian capital is steeped in history. But, as Kitty Knowles discovers, beyond memories of the past, Moscow has plenty of new offerings, from clubs to art galleries, that make it a truly alternative holiday destination  

Moscow has always delivered excellent bars and restaurants on top of a rich variety of museums and cultural attractions. The Russian capital is home to a heady mix of old and new, and while the impressive Red Square will always draw a steady tourist crowd, it’s the capital’s dynamic pockets of nightlife and creativity that epitomise the modern Muscovite’s life, not the city’s dour Soviet past.

New veins of activity and creativity continuously feed the pulse of Russia’s largest city and evoke a vibrant and unexpectedly hip New York air. While not as beautiful as St Petersburg, Moscow manages to be both cool and elegant. Take, for example, the former Red October chocolate factory, on Bolotny Island, which rivals Manhattan’s Meatpacking District for edgy clubs, hipster cafés and modern art galleries. The Golden Mile on Ostozhenka Street, meanwhile, oozes class with its mix of luxury apartments, Art Nouveau mansions and bustling Russian and Georgian restaurants.

It’s not all about the new and shiny though. Moscow’s history still plays a major part in shaping the modern city. Russia’s largest church, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (where Pussy Riot infamously performed in 2012), on Volkhonka Street, glistens poignantly above the urban skyline. While a symbol of deep-set Orthodox traditions, in its new guise as a beacon for punk activism it has also come to symbolise young Moscow’s more progressive outlook.

That doesn’t mean the government has relaxed its curtailment of civil liberties, however. The recently passed law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ among juveniles has provoked condemnation from many Western onlookers, and has seen gay activists arrested and sometimes violently abused. Life goes on for the gay population in Moscow, but at a noticeably lower volume. If you’re intending to sample the city’s gay scene, it’s wise to be aware of recent legislation and the controversies surrounding it.

With a population of nearly 12 million, the capital can feel overwhelming, but it sports recently printed English-language maps and a new bicycle hire scheme. These make Moscow far more accessible to visitors – finding the latest Chinatown eatery or Gorky Park pop-up market is so much easier by bike than by metro. Moscow’s vogue hotspots often appear with vigour and vanish without a trace, but healthy curiosity and a good supply of energy are all that’s required to keep up with this ever-changing city.

Museums and attractions
It’s easy to see how the transient Moscow lifestyle and glittering River Mosca has inspired Russian art for centuries. No visit to the city is complete without immersing oneself in the painterly scenes of the Tretyakov Gallery (10 Lavrushinskiy Ln, +7 499 230 77 88; tretyakovgallery.ru), which provides a walk through history from Russia’s early religious relics to the modern avant-garde.

For modern art, see the temporary pavilion at the Garage Centre of Contemporary Art (Pionersky Pond, Gorky Park, +7 495 645 05 20; garageccc.com), designed by eco-friendly architect Shigeru Ban, or the Multimedia Art Museum (16 Ostozhenka St, +7 495 637 11 00; mamm-mdf.ru), which is devoted entirely to photography (think everything from Rodchenko to Nan Goldin).

For a more interactive experience, visit avant-garde landmark the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage (11 Obraztsova St, +7 495 645 05 50; jewish-museum.ru), home to the largest Jewish museum in the world. Here, personal testimony, archival video and interactive displays engage visitors in a modern and intelligent way, with all literature available in both English and Russian.

Restaurants and bars
Cosmopolitan in cuisine as well as culture, Moscow’s restaurants, bars and cafés offer much more than just traditional pelmeni dumplings.

Saperavi (5 Pokrovka St, +7 495 790 11 55; saperavicafe.com) uses new flavours to modernise Russia’s traditional Georgian cuisine, and caters particularly well for vegetarians, offering well-spiced dishes such as hazelnut-stuffed aubergine slices, tarragon walnut baked mushrooms and soft red ‘lobio’ beans with cabbage.

Everything about Moscow’s White Rabbit (3 Smolenskaya Sq, +7 49566 33 999; whiterabbitmoscow.ru) is smart and sophisticated, and Vlladimir Mukhin’s refined Russian meals are mouth-wateringly good. But it’s the restaurant’s incredible 360-degree panoramic view across the city that leaves the longest lasting impression.

Drinking is often at the centre of Muscovite socialising and most Moscow cocktail bars effortlessly surpass expectations. Basement restaurant Delicatessen (Building 2, 20 Sadovaya-Karetnaya St, +7 495 699 39 52; fb.com/DelicatessenMoscow) is a hot spot for Moscow’s elite creative and business professionals and well worth tracking down. You won’t find yourself poring over a cocktail list, instead the legendary mixologist Vyacheslav Lankin helps you decide upon your poison of choice.

Friendly staff and affordable quality make the European-style Noor Bar (23 Tverskaya St, +7 903 136 76 86; noorbar.com) Moscow’s best bar in the eyes of many. Or, for rooftop romance, head for drinks at the Timeout Bar (no relation, 12/F-13/F, 5B Sadovaya Street, +7 495 229 01 80; hotelpeking.ru), on the top two floors of the Peking Hotel (a former KGB building) for a brunch-time Breakfast Martini, an afternoon aperitif or sunset cocktail.

Music and clubs
While the best small-scale club is undoubtedly the extravagant Vanilla Ninja (15 Rochdelskaya St; fb.com/VanillaNinjaClub) – a tiny private club combining techno, thorned lamps and baroque armchairs – Moscow’s stereotyped $150-a-shot clubs and live music venues are fast dying out. A New York-meets-Berlin brand of nightlife is now taking hold and is turning industrial estates and abandoned factories the newest party territory.

Gipsy (3-4 Bolotnaya Embankment, +7 495 669 86 93; bargipsy.ru), with one dance floor inside and another on an outdoor terrace, is just one of a number of clubs and bars based at the former Red October factory site. And whenever you’re out and about in Moscow, you can always head to Propaganda (7 Bolshoy Zlatoustinskiy Pereulok, +7 495 624 57 32; propagandamoscow.com), the only club open seven nights a week. Propaganda is free to enter, with cheap drinks and attracts a lively student crowd.

Ballet, opera and theatre
While the grand Bolshoi Theatre (1 Teatralnaya Square, +7 495 455 55 55; bolshoi.ru) is rich in heritage, its productions have always managed to be at the forefront of contemporary performance, attracting visitors for more than 200 years. Other accomplished companies include the Satirikon Theatre (8 Sheremetyevskaya St, +7 495 602 65 83; satirikon.ru), which received rave reviews for its take on Chekov’s psychological masterpiece The Seagull, while the recent run of Swan Lake at the Stanislavsky Theatre (23 Tverskaya St, +7 495 215 00 67; stanislavskydrama.ru) epitomised how Russian ballet is always capable of reinterpreting timeless classics in unexpected ways. 

Where to stay
Four Seasons Hotel Moscow
One of Moscow’s newest hotels, the Four Seasons was built to mimic the original 1930s Hotel Moskva that once stood in its place. This luxury property is just a short walk from Red Square and features a range of bars and restaurants, a spa and its own shopping mall. Rooms from $3,500 per night. 2 Okhotny Ryad, Moscow, +7 499 277 7100; fourseasons.com.

Kebur Palace
Just a short walk from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art, Kebur Palace is a small, functional hotel with a restaurant, pool and sauna. There are a range of room types to suit your needs, including two-storey apartments with a Jacuzzi. Rooms from $866 per night. 32 Ostozhenka Street, Moscow, +7 495 733 9070; keburpalace.ru.

How to get there
Russia’s flag carrier, Aeroflot (aeroflot.com), flies direct to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport from $3,500 (inc tax). 

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